While the men are routinely subjected to everyday violence, the more heinous attacks on scheduled castes are aimed at girls and women

Daughters of another god

by Amar Guriro

It is a story of fear and helplessness, unending torment and unrelenting tribulations: Dalit parents are left without a voice or access to justice while their daughters are kidnapped and converted

Neelam Kolhi outside her home located near Samaro town in Umerkot district. She was kidnapped and forcibly converted but later a court ordered her return home. The family is impoverished as can be seen by their makeshift hut. -Photos by Amar Guriro
Neelam Kolhi outside her home located near Samaro town in Umerkot district. She was kidnapped and forcibly converted but later a court ordered her return home. The family is impoverished as can be seen by their makeshift hut. -Photos by Amar Guriro

Fear makes perfectly good people provide perfectly valid justifications for ultimately vile practices.

Dalit communities settled in Sindh have adopted the practice of early marriages: girls as young as 11 are forcibly married off with the rationalisation that they’ll be kidnapped or even raped if they are single. If she is kidnapped, then she is converted and married off to a Muslim man. In most cases, despite protests by parents and Hindu rights activists, the family will never see the girl again.

Frightened parents, therefore, wed their daughter at an early age to reduce the risks of their daughters being kidnapped. It is, after all, a matter of continuing lineage, faith and culture.

Thirteen-year-old Neelam Kohli could also have fallen prey to the same vicious cycle but she has been the exception to the rule: kidnapped and converted about two years ago, she was able to return to her family on the directives of a court.

She is alive and well today, her conversion has not been deemed legal, and she is not burdened with pregnancy either since she couldn’t bear children when she was raped. But her parents are now unable to find a suitor for her, since their community says Neelam was in the kidnappers’ custody for a month or so.

Neelam Kohli used to be a resident of a slum settlement called the Bheel Colony, situated near Kot Ghulam Muhammad town of Mirpurkhas district. She was kidnapped in September 2014, while her peasant parents were tilling the land. In her testimony later on, she named a local influential, Akbar Khokhar, and his two friends, Javed Kokhar and Dalho Kohli, as the kidnappers. The accused took her to a local madressah, where she was converted.

Her parents approached the police and lodged an FIR against her kidnapping. The case was reported in the Sindhi media and also found traction on social media. Local Hindu groups protested in favour of her recovery and ultimately, she was brought to a local court, where her parents proved her age. She was 11 at the time. The court issued directives to free her and allowed the parents to take her home, but no action was taken against the accused and they were allowed to walk free.

After Neelam’s return, her father Nemoon decided to migrate from their colony: the three influential predators were still out and around, and they could kidnap Neelam once again. The family left Bheel Colony and moved to Samaro Town of Umerkot district, where they live now.

Despite around two years having passed since Neelam’s return, the family is still living in fear. The place where they live now is owned by a local landlord and is in close proximity to the native village of Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi, a Sindhi cleric, famous for forced conversion cases.

“A section of the [Hindu Marriage Bill] says that if any Hindu woman, even if she is married and has children, has converted to Islam, her Hindu marriage will be considered illegal. Many influential people will exploit this section

“We are frightened that someone will again come and kidnap her, and maybe this time around, we will not be able to bring her back,” says Neelam’s mother, Hanjoo Kohli. Her house comprises two smallsized makeshift huts surrounded by a thorn fence. They rarely leave their village.

Sitting with her is Hanjoo Kolhi, her mother. -Photos by Amar Guriro
Sitting with her is Hanjoo Kolhi, her mother. -Photos by Amar Guriro

The fear of girls being taken away and converted has only been reinforced by the new Hindu marriage legislation that was passed by the provincial assembly in February, 2016. Although the Hindu Marriage Bill codifies marriage laws for an estimated 7.5 million Hindus living in Sindh, the question of kidnapping-for-conversion has been evaded by lawmakers.

“A section of the bill says that if any Hindu woman, even if she is married and has children, has converted to Islam, her Hindu marriage will be considered illegal. Many influential people will exploit this section,” explains social worker from Lyari Town, Karachi, Seema Rana.

“We were very happy about finally getting a law that will help reduce forced conversion cases, especially of lower-caste Hindus, but we were wrong. This bill has many flaws, and we demand that certain sections of the bill might be amended, so the Hindus may get some legal protection against forced conversion,” says Seema Rana.

In recent years, the number of kidnappings-for-conversion cases has been increasing in Sindh. Most of these cases go unreported in the mainstream media; there isn’t much interest in the state machinery to solve such cases either, as the majority of them belong to lower caste communities or ‘untouchables’ as they are more commonly known.

“Every year, around 1,000 to 1,200 Dalits girls — approximately 100 every month —are kidnapped and forcibly converted. The numbers could be more but there is no any mechanism to calculate the actual figure,” says renowned Dalit activist Surendar Valasai, who is also the advisor on minority affairs to Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Patron-in-Chief of the PPP.

Most areas where lower caste Hindus live have no basic facilities, and women have to walk miles everyday to fetch water for their families.
Most areas where lower caste Hindus live have no basic facilities, and women have to walk miles everyday to fetch water for their families.

Valasai explains that when a Dalit girl is kidnapped, her parents, instead of lodging a case in any police station, are forced to sit with the opponent while local feudal lords sweep the matter under the rug in the name of Jirga. He says most of these Dalits are very poor and are unable to highlight their plight.

Abdul Hai of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s (HRCP) Sindh chapter agrees that a large number of forced conversion cases of lower caste Hindus is taking place but is going unreported. “We haven’t been receiving forced conversation cases as rich Hindus deal with these cases on their own; poor Dalits are also unable to reach us,” he says.

According to official estimates in 2011, with a 7.5 million-strong population, Hindus are the biggest religious minority of Pakistan and the majority lives in Sindh. Unofficial estimates put the number higher. But various Hindu rights organisations estimate that around 6.8m or 90 pc of them are lower caste or ‘untouchables’.

Some of these lower caste Hindus are scattered in southern Punjab as well as the northern districts of upper Sindh (including Sukkur, Ghotki and Jacobabad), but the vast majority of them are in different districts of lower Sindh, particularly in Mirpurkhas division (Tharparkar, Sanghar, Umerkot and Mirpurkhas).

They are poor, uneducated and have no access to basic facilities such as drinking water, sanitation and even schools. Most of them are either living on a local influential’s land or that of the government. In most of these districts, the Sindh government has been unable to provide land ownership to these vulnerable communities.

In Tharparkar district, around 700,000 or almost half the total 1.6m population are Hindus; around 80pc of those Hindus are lower caste communities, such as Meghwars, Kohlis and Bheels. Whenever there is drought, which has now become frequent, these lower caste Hindus travel to nearby districts which are irrigated on River Indus, in search of food for themselves and fodder for their livestock. In these districts, they work as temporary farm workers on the lands of powerful Muslim landlords. Despite working day and night, on most occasions these poor Dalits are not given their due share in the crop.

“After a drought hits Thar Desert, these Dalits become internally displaced people. They walk hundreds of miles with their livestock, to find some employment as agricultural workers with a powerful Muslim landlord. But in many cases, work is forcibly extracted out of them; they are often not paid, and eventually, are pushed into bonded labour,” says rights activist Veerji Kohli.

Although a majority of Pakistani Hindus are lower caste, almost all Hindu parliamentarians are from the upper caste, which creates a set of dichotomies: who becomes the voice of Dalits in Sindh?

In total, there are 37 representative seats that have been reserved for religious minorities in various legislatures: 10 seats in the National Assembly, four seats in the Senate, nine in the Sindh Assembly, eight in Punjab, and three each in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Of these 37 reserved seats — meant for Hindus, Christians, Sikhs and other minorities — 20 are occupied by Hindu parliamentarians, 16 of whom are upper caste Hindus. In essence, they represent the 9pc of the total Hindu population in Pakistan.

The shrine of Pir Pithoro in Pithoro Town in District Umerkot is exclusively a shrine for lower caste Hindus
The shrine of Pir Pithoro in Pithoro Town in District Umerkot is exclusively a shrine for lower caste Hindus

Pakistani Hindus, like other religious minorities, have dual vote rights in principle. But in reality, they have no right to vote to elect their own representative, as seats for religious minorities are kept as reserved. Distribution of these seats is at the discretion of political parties’ leadership, and therefore, most upper-caste Hindus, majority of them well-off and privileged, are nominated to these seats.

“Dalits are poor and can’t pay huge amount in party funds as upper caste Hindus usually do. As a result, they can’t reach the assemblies and thus their voice is not heard in the assemblies,” says Veerji.

In fact, Dalit exclusion and discrimination at the hands of upper caste Hindus is as much a concern for lower caste Hindus as the persecution inflicted from elsewhere. They are not allowed to sit or eat with any upper caste Hindu, and therefore in Mirpurkhas district, there are separate tea stalls or restaurants for these lower caste communities. It is for this reason that Mirpurkhas, Khipro, Sanghar, Umerkot and other cities of Mirpurkhas division are dotted with restaurants and shacks named “Hindu Hotel”, “Kohli Hotel”, “Bheel Hotel” and so on.

Similarly, lower caste Hindus have their own places of worship, where annual mass gatherings of Dalits are held. Rarely would any upper caste Hindus visit these temples or shrines. The shrine of Pir Pithoro in the Pithoro town in Umerkot District, and the Rama Pir Temple in Tando Allahyar, are both examples of exclusive sites of worship for Dalit Hindus.

But Sant Neeno Ram Ashram, a shrine of local saint in Salamkot town of Tharparkar district, provides the uglier side to the dynamic: managed by upper caste Hindus, this shrine is frequented daily by a large number of lower caste Hindus. Even in matters of worship, Dalits face discrimination: instead of food being served on plates, upper caste Hindus distribute food on old newspaper. Even in devotion, Dalits in Sindh are children of a different god.

The writer is a journalist based in Karachi. He tweets @AmarGuriro

On the run

by Aslam Khwaja

Its a case of once bitten, twice shy for families whose loved ones have been kidnapped or pushed into bondage

Some 28 years ago, young Meeran was captured by zamindar Lal Mangrio in tehsil Dhoronaro, Umarkot district, along with her family — her father, four brothers and four sisters. She was released some seven years ago. But when her family planned to marry her off within their community, the zamindar’s son, Ibrahim Mangrio, kept her; later on, he and his henchmen would sexually assault her. Meeran now has two children.

When she gave birth to a girl, the zamindar wanted the infant, named Meerzadi. Upon her refusal to comply, he allegedly poisoned the seven-month-old baby.

About five years ago, Meeran gave birth to a boy named Hanif. Today, she is on the run from the zamindar, who is after the boy now. Recently he offered her Rs100,000 for the child but she refused. She lives by constantly changing her place of residence in fear of the zamindar.

After employing Lalio Kohli’s family for two to three years as peasants, a zamindar near Umarkot declared that her family had incurred loans of Rs50,000 from him and kept them in chains. One night, this family fled from the zamindar’s private prison but were captured by the landlord’s armed men. Lacho’s husband, Lalio Kolhi, was beaten badly and separated from his family.

Most cases of forced Dalit conversions are not reported in the mainstream media nor do they find attention at the government level.
Most cases of forced Dalit conversions are not reported in the mainstream media nor do they find attention at the government level.

Upon enquiring about her husband, she was told that he was working on the fields. After some time, the Umarkot police raided the area and many workers were freed but there was no trace of Lacho’s husband. She is still searching for Lalio.

Chandar Kohli alias Javed Shaikh was rescued from bonded labour by rights activists in District Thatta. He had been kept in bondage by a landlord named Luqman Palari for Rs200. He worked for two years without any payment.

When rights activists Ghulam Hussain and Lalee Kohli received information about Chandar Kohli slaving away in bondage, they proceeded to the village to rescue him. Despite heated arguments and threats issued by the landlord, the activists successfully rescued the peasant.

Lalee narrates that at one point, both parties were ready for a physical confrontation. One of the landlord’s managers claimed that the local administration will do nothing against them; his belief was that they could extract bonded labour out of anyone who was in debt, even if the amount owed was as little as Rs5.

Chandar was taken to a residential colony for freed bonded labour in Hyderabad. He set up a life there; he was happily married with three children and working independently on a farm.

About nine years ago, some preachers contacted him and drove him to Karachi. They offered him a better life and a Muslim woman’s hand in marriage if he converted to Islam. Unable to deal with the trappings of the caste system, he was attracted by the glamour of urban Muslim life and subsequently converted.

But at home, Chandar’s wife refused to become Muslim and went to live with her parents instead. Meanwhile, those who had helped Chandar convert distanced themselves. Today, Chandar faces an unusual dilemma: he is officially a Muslim citizen, and according to Islamic laws, he cannot become Hindu again. His family is still not willing to convert.

The writer is a social science researcher. He tweets @AslamKhwaja

Living at the edge

by Mansoor Raza

In October, 2013, the dead body of a low-caste Hindu named Bhuro Bheel from Pangrio, Badin was exhumed from the graveyard on the pretext that low-caste Hindus cannot be buried in a graveyard used by Muslims. Bhuro was killed in a road accident.

According to a press report “…local clerics instigated the mob to dig out the body by repeating that a ‘non-Muslim was buried in a Muslim graveyard’.” The clerics mentioned were in fact seminary students from a nearby town, who came armed with weapons to carry out the task, say locals. Bhuro’s body lay under the sky for nearly eight hours before it could be retrieved by members of the Dalit community.

In another case, Manoo Bheel from Thar has been on hunger strike since 2003 to recover nine family members who have gone missing. His family had migrated to an irrigated area after a drought but in the 1980s, he started working with a zamindar in district Mithi as a working partner.

After some years, the zamindar claimed that Manoo had taken an advance, so he refused the payment of his wages. Instead, he sold Manoo and three of his brothers and two of his in-laws with their families —21 family members in total —to another zamindar in Sanghar district. Despite some administrative measures, Munno Bheel is still in search of justice.

According to the 1998 census, the population of religious minorities in Pakistan was around six million or 3.7pc of the total population. Hindus and Christians constitute 83pc of religious minorities, with Hindus outnumbering Christians by a small margin. About 93pc of Hindus live in Sindh.

In 1956, the government of Pakistan declared about 32 castes and tribes as schedules castes in the country. The majority of them are lower-caste Hindus, such as Kohlis, Meghawars, Bheels, Bagris, Balmakis, Jogis and Oadhs. Most low-caste Hindus are in menial jobs and associated with low-end agricultural services.

The spatial distribution of those, widely, is Rahimyar Khan and Bhawalpur districts in Punjab and Tharparkar, Mirpurkhas, Umerkot and Badin districts in Sindh.

In 1956, the government of Pakistan declared about 32 castes and tribes as schedules castes in the country. The majority of them are lower-caste Hindus, such as Kohlis, Meghawars, Bheels, Bagris, Balmakis, Jogis and Oadhs.

Many of these communities face the brunt of vulnerability when a natural disaster strikes. Worldwide, disasters affect poorest of the poor most, as they live in hazardous areas, don’t have monetary cushions for rehabilitation and are discriminated in aid delivery. All those holds true for Pakistan’s Dalit population as well — these factors became glaringly obvious in the aftermath of the 2010 floods, where reportedly, they were denied access to relief goods on one pretext or another.

The low-caste Hindus are caught up in a vicious cycle. Ending their woes is not possible without political mainstreaming, but students of political science know very well that performance in political spheres is heavily dependent on the economic well being of a community, particularly when it comes to minorities.

Minorities thrive in excellence and it comes with educational achievements. The literacy rates of Dalits, according to a report, are only 26pc as compared to national rates of 58 to 70 per cent.

Economic impoverishment, discrimination and spatial distribution of population are big impediments for these wretched of earth to perform. Upward social mobility is not possible without owning modes of production as defined by service capitalism, which in turn relies heavily on advance education system for its survival. Discrimination also means usurpation of due social capital, another loss to the community.

Traditionally in South Asia, caste tends to define professions as well. It has worked for quite long in a barter economy, but with the advent of the culture of cash economies, the former started collapsing. The global consensus on the values of human rights also brought the issue of birth-descent discrimination to the fore. The values of free-market are also at loggerheads with traditional mindsets.

Moreover, a secular contract between a citizen and the state demands removing all shades of discrimination based on caste, class, gender, ethnicity and sect.

In Pakistan’s case, the State has all the necessary instruments at its disposal and has all the moral justification to support the downtrodden.

Will it act or not is a different question, one defined more by political will.

The writer is a freelance researcher with a specific interest in subaltern narratives and the functioning of urban centres in Asia. He can be reached at mansooraza@gmail.com

Pending bills, lingering agony

by Hasan Mansoor

Two proposed laws to safeguard minorities are pending before the Sindh Assembly ... what kind of relief do they provide?

Forced conversions of non-Muslim Pakistani girls has not spared Dalits either, many of whom are equally anxious to migrate from Pakistan to India as upper caste Hindus from the northern parts of Sindh. To stop the rot, provincial legislators have sought to provide some protection for minorities through two new laws — the Sindh Forced Conversion Act and the Sindh Minorities’ Rights Commission Bill — but both are pending with the Sindh Assembly. Here is a detailed look at what these proposed legislations have to offer:

Sindh Forced Conversion Bill

The bill against forced conversion of girls from minority faiths has been pending in the Sindh Assembly for more than a year now, waiting for a nod from a standing committee to table it in the house.

“This bill caters to all the minority faiths,” says Shahnaz Sheedi, provincial coordinator of the South Asia Partnership (SAP-PK), which champions for minority rights in the country. “It takes care of all Hindus, including those belonging to scheduled castes.”

Indeed, this bill provides a common forum to tackle the issue of forced conversions instead of segregating Hindus in Dalits and upper castes.

The text of the bill states the provincial government would issue a notification to law enforcement agencies, relevant bodies, institutions, committees and commissions to ensure the enforcement of the Act. Effective protocols would be formulated including those relating to minorities, health, education, women, social welfare and labour, to address the issue of forced conversion; support services would not be limited just to shelter, legal aid, medical aid etc for the support of aggrieved persons.

The law will define forced conversion as an act by which a person is forced to adopt another religion under duress, force, coercion or threat.

Any case of forced conversion before a court would be disposed of within 90 days. The law has stipulated punishments for any person who forcefully converts another person: the offender would be liable to imprisonment for a minimum of five years and maximum of life imprisonment and a fine to be paid to the victim.

“Whoever performs, conducts, directs, brings about or in any way facilitates a marriage having knowledge that either or both parties are victims of forced conversion shall be liable to imprisonment of either description for minimum three years and a fine to be paid to the agreed person,” reads the draft bill.

The law would define the age for conversion, according to which no person would be deemed to have changed his/her religion until attaining the age of majority. Besides, any minor who claims to have changed his/her religion before attaining majority would not be deemed to have changed his/her religion and no action would be taken against him or her for any such claim made by the minor. However, such clauses would not extend to circumstances where parents or guardians of minor decide to change religion of the family.

In a case of forced conversion, the accused, in addition to a charge of forced conversion would also be liable, where applicable, for offences which may include but not be limited to: child marriage under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013; forced marriage under Section 498B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) 1860; rape under sections 375 and 376 of the PPC 1860; kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel for marriage etc under Section 365B of the PPC 1860; kidnapping or abducting from lawful guardianship under Section 361 of the PPC; kidnapping or abducting a person under the age of fourteen under Section 364A of the PPC 1860; kidnapping or abducting in order to subject person to grievous hurt, slavery etc.; and bonded labour under relevant sections of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992.

For rescue, custody and special procedures for aggrieved persons, a police officer upon receiving information of a case of forced conversion may take into custody the aggrieved person and produce her or him before the court within 24 hours. Besides, if it appears to a court from information given by a credible source that an offence of forced conversion has been or is being committed, the court would order the police to search for the victim and rescue them.

For security reasons, special measures could be put in place, which included holding the trial in a secure location, taking the aggrieved person’s statement and evidence in a secure location; providing police protection during transport of the victim to and from court; and initiate immediate and fast tracked divorce proceedings in cases of forced conversion through marriage if the accused is found guilty upon the consent of the victim.

The court would take measures to provide security to prosecution witnesses, investigating officers, prosecutors, victim, her or his family and judges during the pendency of investigation and trial.

Sindh Minorities’ Rights Commission Bill

This bill is also lying with a standing committee of the Sindh Assembly, which is weighing some of its clauses before sending it to the law ministry for it to be tabled formally before the house.

After the passage of this bill, the provincial government will constitute the Sindh Minorities’ Rights Commission, comprising of a chairperson from a minority community, who has been or, qualified to be a judge, of high court or person having knowledge of, or practical experience in the matters of rights of minorities and human rights.

Seven other members will also be nominated by the Sindh government. Five of the members, including the chairperson, will be from among the minority communities; at least two women, two activists from civil society; and one each from youth and lawyers.

The commission will be headquartered in Karachi, and in future regional offices would be established at divisional and district levels. It will examine the working of the various safeguards provided in existing laws and recommend ways to ensure their effective implementation. It will also monitor the implementation of policies and schemes of the Sindh government for the welfare of minorities.

Heroes from minorities, who have served for country, will be identified by the commission and recommended to be taught in educational syllabi. The commission will monitor minority rights, constitutional and legal rights, legislation, development, 5pc quota in jobs, political participation, dignity, hate material, ensure justice, and promote inter-faith harmony.

It will also look into specific complaints regarding deprivation of rights and safeguards of minority communities and take them up with the authorities.

The commission will hold direct investigation and inquiry in respect of violation of human rights of a person belonging to a minority group; and devise a plan of action for the protection of human rights of minorities in Sindh.

The commission can take cognisance on a petition presented to it by a victim or any person on one’s behalf, inquire into the complaints of violation of human rights of any person belonging to minorities or abetment thereof, or negligence in the prevention of such violation, by a public servant.

It can intervene in any proceeding involving any allegation of such violation pending before a court. The commission will have judicial powers to decide and investigate any time and demand for any document from all institutions (wherever permissible by the government).

While inquiring into the complaints of violation of human rights, the commission can call for information or report from the provincial government or any other authority or organisation; it would have all the powers of a civil court trying a suit under the code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (Act V of 1908), for summoning and enforcing the attendance of witnesses and examining them on oath, discovery and production of documents, receiving evidence on affidavits, requisitioning any public record or copy from any court or office, issuing commission for the examination of witnesses or documents etc.

The commission would be deemed to be a civil court to the extent that is described in sections 175, 178, 179, 180 and 228 of the PPC. Every proceeding before the commission would be deemed as a judicial proceeding; thus it would be a civil court for the purposes of Section 195 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898.

The commission may, for an investigation into a matter, utilise the services of any officer or investigation agency with the prior approval of the government and that officer or agency would be under the direction and control of the commission;

After the inquiry, the commission could recommend to the provincial government for prosecution against the concern person(s), and recommend for grant of immediate interim relief to the victim etc.

The commission would preserve the identity of a victim, informant etc where necessary for the purpose of security.

For the speedy trial of offences arising out of violation of human rights of the religious minorities, the Sindh government would notify a court of sessions to be the human rights court for a district to try such offences. The Sindh government would appoint an advocate to be special prosecutor for conducting cases in that court.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 13th, 2016



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